Documentary of the Day – Harlan County, U.S.A

A topical selection for today since we seem to be in the midst of a class warfare, I mean workers struggles, I mean whatever the fuck is happening to the middle class.  I can’t say that I am a blue collar worker, so I don’t necessarily have a strong opinion about labor unions, but I can see why they are needed, especially when a company refuses to increase pay at a considerable amount and reap untold profits.  I will stop with the political talk since this is not the forum or pulpit to spout off about workers rights.  Just know, I care at least.

I think I chose this today because in order for us to understand our current dilemma, we need to realize that this struggle is nothing new.  This has been going on for decades and will continue to go on.  I am not saying there isn’t an end to this struggle, but something needs to be done.  I realize that is big of me to say sitting in a arm chair that my dog Dexter has so thoroughly chewed to hell.  So today, to bring a little light to on an ongoing plight, Harlan County, U.S.A.

Director Barbara Kopple’s look at a 13-month coal miners’ strike that took place between 1973 and 1974 in Harlan County, KY, is one of the great films about labor troubles, though not for a sense of objectivity. Kopple lived among the miners and their families off and on during the four years the entire story played out, and it’s clear in every frame of the film that her sympathies lie with the miners and not their bosses at Eastover Mining, owned by Duke Power Company. Kopple’s camera focuses on the desperate plight of people still living in shacks with no indoor plumbing and working dangerous jobs with little security and few safety rules. The miners are determined to join the United Mine Workers, and the company is determined to break the strike with scabs, who are even more desperate than the men with jobs. The miners eventually win a new contract, though it turns out that some of the benefits they had fought for were not included in the final deal.  (Moviefone)

I will come out say this about the documentary right out the gate, this isn’t the most objective film out there.  This is a one sided documentary that captures the emotions of the miners and the struggle that the whole community had against the Duke Power Company.  In some ways, people can dismiss this documentary on that basis.  They need to be objective and have an open mind about both sides, but when you watch the documentary unfold, you closely side with the workers.  You are watching families, children and the men of the mining town living not in the American dream, but rather a nightmare.  Terrible living conditions, no running water and spotty electricity and dangerous working conditions are just the catalyst that is needed for the strike and conflict to happen.  One can only take so much shit before they fight back.

While I digress into the story of the film, the documentary must be applauded for what it was able to accomplish and film.  While not biased (to a degree) the filmmakers managed to let the strike and people tell the story.  There was no need for Barbara to jump in with interviews and pushing the story where she wanted it to go.  Her 4 years spent with the families allowed them to almost ignore the camera and act as natural as possible.  It offers up an unflinching eye to a struggle that is not over, even if small victories were gained through it all.  It was a strike that was not without its tragedies.  Black Lung, corruption, thugs, strike breakers and even murder all unfold and captured on film.

There are some powerful images scattered amongst the pickets, the yelling, confrontation and tragedies.  The women of the mining town come out in force, mirroring women’s rights movement and while the men stop the scabs from entering the mine, the women are on the front line giving the Power Company hell.  They act in a cavalier manner, but it’s because they have to.  It’s not posturing, but rather a sense of power they need to have to stand their ground even when the talks develop into armed conflicts and people brandishing firearms like it’s the wild west.

Harlan County, U.S.A is a monumental film that rings even true in today’s heated, political battleground.  The directors choice to let the people tell the story of the film is powerful as we become a part of the struggle, in a passive, voyeuristic manner.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t sympathize with the cause.  What you are watching is the middle class of America trying to just make a living.  Is it so much to ask for safe working condition, running water and a pay that allows them to make a go at life?  This should hit a chord with you.  No matter your class or thoughts, you should feel something when watching this.  This is just a small strike that went on during the 70’s, just one of many strikes.  If it came down to violence here, I can’t imagine how it played out elsewhere.

About Nick
I am just another blogger putting his thoughts into a website. My love is movies so most of my musings will be movie related. I work as an online marketer for an advertising company and when I am not earning a paycheck, I moonlight as a vigilante film blogger.

4 Responses to Documentary of the Day – Harlan County, U.S.A

  1. I hasn’t heard of this one. Thanks for sharing.

    • Nick says:

      It is one that escaped me as well. I only caught it on Hulu Plus a couple of days ago since they stream Criterion and Janus films on there with the monthly subscription.

  2. Frank Bishop says:

    I wasn’t aware of any of this. What I know about Harlan County I have learned watching Justified. Who knew?

    • Nick says:

      I am not going to lie, one of the main reasons I watch Harlan County, USA was because of Justified. Which by the way, this season is kickass

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